Violence as a political tool

Observation #4: A militant group uses war to gain power unavailable through democratic means.

If the outside enemy benefits politicians of the State, violence itself does the same for a militant group. In my last post on the subject, I argued that government participation in the Sri Lanka conflict has more to do with internal divisions among the Sinhalese majority than with any real disagreement with the Tamils. Likewise on the LTTE side, the situation is more complex than it first appears.

The LTTE began as a group of low-caste Tamil militants. Increasing discrimination against Tamils by the Sinhala-controlled government meant fewer resources for all Tamils– and especially for those of lower caste. In addition, the caste structure itself enforced a kind of discrimination within the Tamil community. Low-caste youths, a minority within their own ethnic group, had no means of gaining political power through democratic means, not even within their own ethnicity. They had no hope of improving their situation, which they perceived to be relatively worse off, without violence. Thus in the early 1970s, the precursor to the LTTE was formed by a couple of dozen militant youths. Their first exploits were primarily robberies, but they quickly graduated to political targets.

Interestingly, in the mid-1980s, the LTTE had a significant following among college students and intellectuals in the Tamil community, who perceived that democracy had failed to address the grievances of the Tamils as a whole. The LTTE, which claims to be the “sole” voice of the Tamil people, at that time had a fairly broad base of support. But toward the late 1980s, the independent thought of these supporters became inconvenient, and the LTTE increasingly relied on low-caste recruits who had little to lose. The hero-culture promoted by the LTTE made possible acclaim that a youth from a poor village in the jungle could never otherwise hope to achieve.

Because the LTTE essentially represents a double minority, without a significant change in perspective it would not get elected in a free and fair election. Thus, it must ensure that it never faces one. Eliminating opponents is necessary, but not sufficient: it must prevent elections from taking place. That can easily be done by continuing the same course it has maintained for over two decades: violence. In a state of war, elections are impossible and the LTTE faces no opposition within its territory.

The pattern replays itself around the world: post-modern militants most often represent a minority position that could not win an election in a democracy. The position may be ethnic, religious, class, caste, language– almost any type of division within a society. Mao wrote that power grows from the barrel of a gun. By resorting to violence, the minority can co-opt both power and audience that they would otherwise not have access to.

A final note: the war in Sri Lanka has at times absorbed up to 40% of the country’s GDP. The LTTE, representing a minority within a minority, quite literally impacts the entire economy of the nation (though not with positive effect). It could never command such power through democratic means. While I do not condone violence, especially against civilians, I do understand this: violence works for a militant group; it provides the group with the power it seeks.

  • Brad Oesten

    What? theres’ no proactive Sinhala chauvinism in play and there isn’t a history of long term discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka? And the British didn’t employ a cynical divide and rule on the island to play up to the Sinhala majority consolidating a divide of discrimination that persists to today? Just like they did in Fiji .

    And with the tsunami, didn’t the Colombo government exploit the devastation in Tamil territory to press its military advantage against the Tamil minority thereby ensuring that the ceasefire would collapse?

    And when has it happened that the Tamil minority has been well served by Sri Lankan democracy except at the manipulative behest of the British colonizers?

    The Tigers have a lot of faults and their militariest strategy is problematical — but after the collapse of the ceasefire Tamils are wondering what are their options not only to address their grievances but to negotiate a separate state of Tamil Eelam. Sri Lanka is beginning to look like a replay of Palestine, or Eritrea, or the Basque country or Aceh in Indonesia….where the conflict will go on and on.

    So I dont see much utility in blaming the Tigers for a situation that is much more complex than their tactical approach. The game is, I hope you realize, to set the LTTE up as a Bush approved terrorist outfit so that the Columbo government is upping the stakes to win favor with Washington.

    You saw that right?

  • DJ

    I think you might have read this post out of context, following as it does the preceding post about GOSL’s role in perpetuating the conflict. I would agree with you that at the present, GOSL is a bigger block to peace than LTTE– but it has not always been so. The leaderships of both sides are to blame for the current situation, at the expense of the civilian population of all ethnic groups. T. D. S. A. Dissanayaka (a Sinhalese), author of “War or Peace in Sri Lanka (Volume II),” wrote that both sides had consistently missed every possible opportunity for peace.
    I cannot argue that GOSL has treated the Tamils badly. They’ve treated the Sinhalese people badly, too. (An estimated 60,000 Sinhalese were disappeared between 1987-1990.) But has LTTE treated the Tamil people any better? Are they any closer to democratic representation now than before 1983? I think not.
    I do believe that under the right circumstances, both parties can and will come to an agreement that will end the war and create a political system that is fair to all. But they will not do this on their own. Left to their own devices, both sides will continue to fight– because that’s what benefits them most.

  • Brad Oesten

    You sidestep the issue of Tamil Eelam. as your preference is to contain the dispute within the one state. So you have this rigid preference to the notion that some how the Tamil minority will be given due democratic process. If it hasn’t happened before why should it happen now or in the future? I grant you that this is a standoff as was the situation in Aceh — but that doesn’t in itself make the Tamil cause any less just. (Acehnese had been fighting for close on 50 years up until the recent cease fire)

    You also infer that the ONLY pro Tamil or separatist element is the Tigers so I guess you have had very little discourse within the Tamil diaspora. This is a REAL issue with broad support and it won’t go away either there or elsewhere.

    There are a many forms of “peace” you know. Ask the Palestinians. So a generic notion of peace isn’t very useful unless it addresses the core dispute and the demands of the Tamils. The way you format it people are supposed to wonder what the Tamils are up in arms about.

    There is a very real basis for a partnership between the Sinhala working class etc and the Tamil struggle but so many political organisations (and the JVP is/was a prime example) are Sinhala chauvinist. Not all, but most.

  • DJ

    The Tamil diaspora, as represented in your comments, has as its first priority Eelam, whereas the Tamil populace in Sri Lanka wants to stop dying. Further, the Tamils in Sri Lanka are not united behind Eelam: the East is at least ambivalent about being ruled by the North. Second to stopping the killing, they want self-determination– not determination by another group of elites which though it may speak the same language they see as much like the current group of elites. They also recognize (in a way the northerners apparently do not) that their security in the East relies on inter-ethnic relationships, which go back hundreds of years. The primary local conflict there is not with the Sinhalese, but with the Muslims. (BTW, it is common to hear non-Easterners say this isn’t so, but go to Batticaloa and spend some time talking with people and this is what you’ll hear– when they dare to speak at all for fear of GOSL, LTTE, or KF making them disappear.)

    As to due process, it does not exist in the Sri Lanka of today for either Tamils or Sinhalese. Yes it is generally worse for Tamils. But I have yet to hear any indication, even from the Tigers themselves, that they expect to implement democracy and due process if they are successful. So an LTTE victory will not get the Tamils what they seek. The LTTE may not be the only pro-Eelam group, but they are the ones with the guns.

    Why did the JVP arise? They were sick of elites somewhere else telling them what was best for them (and keeping the money for themselves). Same reason the LTTE arose. Both are now doing the same to others.

    The war is about whether power is to be retained by the current set of elites, or shared with a new set of elites– the LTTE. Either way, the people in the villages will still lack self-determination. The only solution is local self-determination– at least at the provincial level, and some argue that it must go much lower to be effective.

    Whether that occurs under one national government or two is not particularly relevant to the political outcome, but could have great consequences to the economic outcome. I have yet to hear a logical explanation from the LTTE as to how Eelam would be economically viable, especially if the East was given self-determination. The south would suffer, too, but not nearly to the same extent. In this case, the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts. Of course, both sides would be much better off economically if the huge financial outlay for the war ceased.

    As to the possibility of partnership between Sinhala and Tamil elements outside the elite circles of power, it is not only possible, it is essential if power is to be devolved beyond the small group of elites (on both sides) that currently holds it. We’ve been working toward that end for some time, but of course both leaderships are terrified of such a turn of events.

  • observer

    I somehow get irritated/lose respect with people whose arguments start with” the people don’t support xyz” to define their opponents as if it makes their own position relevant.

    As a non-Lankan and Non-Tamil with longstanding interest in the strife I do feel the LTTE brooks no opposition and uses overt and covert means of suppressing it.However it does not detract from the obvious fact that an organization cannot hold-on, and govern territory against an enemy whose military and economic power outweigh it by atleast 20:1, on the conventional battlefield, with many quislings to help it, for decades.

    Would you kindly explain how the Tamil Diaspora is able to mobilise 10’000 to demonstrate, a week back in Geneva for eelam without supporting LTTE? These people are the cream of Tamil society, successful in life, well educated, away from reach of LTTE and yet gives their hard-earned money and volunteers to fly their airwing??(Not to mean they dont use coercion on some for payments).

    Is it possible to fight the Lankan forces which are supremely superior in every aspect except morale and tactics ,with half-hearted recruits?

    With every revolutionary movement in history it has so happened that people often support them not out of love but as the best bet for winning their goal(_eelam here) and flush after victory usually elects them once or twice and then discard them.This I’m sure will happen to ltte too.

    If GOSL(and DJ) is so sure of the lack of ltte/eelam support why does it not conduct a UN-conducted Referendum–which the ltte has been clamouring for!
    And how do you know the Tamils don’t support ltte by the way??

    I have a feeling the immature behaviour of the Singalese leaders will split lanka a decade or two from now.As for economic viability I feel it shouldn’t be a problem going by the success of Tamils in lanka(under all constraints).

  • DJ

    BTW, in yet another move against the rights of all its citizens, GOSL today blocked access to TamilNet. See

  • In Iraq there’s a loosely-organized insurgency with disparate groups united solely on expelling the US.

    Would you say an invaded people don’t have the right to use violence against an invader using violence against them?

    The United States, of course, has founded in violent revolution, something which people tend to forget, I think. And the Brits hadn’t attacked militarily, so it was a preemptive attack.

  • DJ

    Ah, so many issues, so little time. Let me begin by saying that I am always amused by those who begin their arguments wuith the supposition that if I do not support one side, I must support the other. I do not. I view the war as two elite leaderships conducting a war against the civilian population.

    As to how I come to my conclusions about what Tamil people believe, I have a rather novel approach: I go there and talk to them. In the war zones of western Trinco District, Batti, and so forth, Sinhala and Tamil people both say the same thing: “We don’t want to fight.” But the further you get from the fighting, the more people are willing to sacrifice (someone else’s) lives for an ideology– or just for political power.

    The LTTE has been an exceptional force on the battlefield, pioneering tactics that are now used around the world. Part of their success comes from what I would describe as a “civil religion” that reinforces committment by its recruits– many of whom come from desperate circumstances, which are perpetuated not only by GOSL, but also by LTTE. When LTTE controlled Jaffna, it would buy petrol and other banned goods (illegally) from the Sri Lanka army at absurdly high prices. Then it would mark the price up some more, blame the army for the high price, make some money, and get free propaganda at the same time. Brilliant. (GOSL apparently doesn’t realize that its economic blockades benefit LTTE more than GOSL. Or maybe it does.)

    As to the diasposa, both Sinhala and Tamil, the loudest voices on both sides appear to be far more militant than most Sri Lankan residents. I wish the Sri Lankan ex-pats I have met would go to the places I have been, look in the eyes of the surviving victims of the war (on both sides), and put their effort into ending the violence rather than perpetuating it.

    Brad suggested that working class (by which I assume he meant non-elite) Sinhalese and Tamils have a common ground on which unity would be possible, but neither side will allow that to happen. The same is true in the ex-pat community: the common interest should outweigh the differences. But they don’t. We find that some in the diaspora (both Sinahala and Tamil) are so out of touch with events on the ground that it is difficult even to talk with them about what’s going on there. We would welcome their participation. But it’s hard even to have a conversation.

  • DJ

    Bob: That common goal should form the basis for a negotiated withdrawal of U.S. troops, preventing a power vacuum and the otherwise-inevitable chaos. We all want the same thing. (Except those making money and gaining power– and they exist on both sides.) Unfortunately, the avenue of negotiated settlement has been little followed by our government.

    Do people have a right to use violence against those who attack them? Yes. Will it get them what they want? Not very often.

    Lastly, the origin of the United States is an interesting situation that I don’t think applies here. It was not an occupied country– or at least, the occupees were not the ones who rebelled. Neither was it, by strict definition, a revolution. It was a war of independence in which one set of Brits fought for self-determination from another set of Brits, which the former argued had conducted violent policies against it, thereby justifying violence. Was the violence necessary? John Adams said many years later that it was not: independence was already a certainty before the first shot was ever fired. Perhaps, if there is relevance, that is it: the war was unnecessary.

  • The Brits had no history of letting an oppressed people declare independence and take the land as their own, can’t really see how that could have happened in the American Revolution either.

    The US doesn’t want to leave Iraq, both because they want the oil and as to not publicly face a defeat. For it to be a negotiated withdrawal would contradict 80 years of stated US foreign policy wanting hegemony in the Middle East.

    What would suggest the Iraqi populace do, not fight back?

    One thing on your thoughts, you, I think, assume a moral equivalence between all sides and don’t take the political into account much. I’m not sure that’s realistic or practical.

  • DJ

    You’re right in a sense: I assume a moral equivalence between political violence– or perhaps “immoral equivalence” would be a better choice of words. This is because I evaluate violence not on its intentions, but on its results. Though it may begin with all the great intentions on the world, it becomes a tool of extremists against not only the enemy, but its own populace as well. We should be seeing this very clearly by now: violence serves extremism.

    I say again, does the Iraq population have the moral right to fight off an invader? Yes. Will it get them what they want? No. Same with the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka– it is difficult to argue that under the circumstances they did not have the moral right to take up arms. But it made their situation worse, and the leaders who once fought for their liberation are their new masters. Where before there was an unconvincing nod toward democracy, now there is none at all. That is unlikely to change as long as the fighting continues– and neither combatant has any inclination to stop fighting.

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